Chinese Dragon origins

We have recently been challenged to look once more at Chinese Dragons. This has presented the opportunity to gather all the information I have acquired on Dragons and try to put it together in some semblance of order and accuracy. Over the years there has been a lot of contradictory information as the mythology around the Chinese Dragon has been passed down through the ages. This is, therefore, going to be part of an iterative process as I add more images in due course.

In which case, should there be something you do not agree with, please let me know by Commenting as I am more than happy to revisit the source of some of this information. If you have a better source, please share. In the meantime I trust that this sequence of 5 blog posts is useful to you.

Please note: The Calligraphy for Dragon, along with the other Zodiac Animals is available on the link here.

Colourful Dragon statue against sky
Colourful Dragon statues against the sky

Origins

The origin of the Chinese Dragon is uncertain, but many scholars agree that it originated from totems of different tribes in China. Some have suggested that it comes from a stylized depiction of existing animals, such as snakes, fish, or crocodiles. For example, the Banpo site of the Yangshao culture in Shaanxi Province featured an elongated, snake-like fish motif. Archaeologists believe the “long fish” to have evolved into images of the Chinese Dragon.

The association with fish is reflected in the legend of a carp that saw the top of a mountain and decided he was going to reach it. He swam upstream, climbing rapids and waterfalls letting nothing get in the way of his determination. When he reached the top there was the mythical “Dragon Gate” and when he jumped over he became a Dragon. Several waterfalls and cataracts in China are believed to be the location of the Dragon Gate. It is worth noting that Dragon Gate Taoism is currently the largest existing Taoism branch in the world according to Wikipedia.

Fundamentally, this legend is used as an allegory for the drive and effort needed to overcome obstacles and achieve success.

An alternative view, advocated by He Xin, is that the early Dragon depicted a species of ancient, giant saltwater crocodile, the precursor to today’s Crocodylus porosus, the largest living reptile. The crocodile is known to be able to accurately sense changes in air pressure, and, therefore, to sense coming rain. This may have been the origin of one of the Dragon’s mythical attributes to control the weather, especially the rain. In addition, there is evidence of crocodile worship in ancient Babylonian, Indian, and Mayan civilizations. The association with the crocodile is also supported by the ancient view that large crocodiles were a variety of Dragon. For example, in the Story of Zhou Chu, about the life of a Jin Dynasty General, he is said to have killed a “Dragon” that infested the waters of his home village, which appears to have been a crocodile.

Some support for the crocodile hypothesis may come from the fact that the Marsh dragon “jiao long” in ancient Chinese legend is known as the ‘Water Dragon’. Its habitats are mostly ponds, valley lakes or deep under the rivers and streams (not sea) which are far away from residents.

The coiled snake or Dragon form played an important role in early Chinese culture. Legendary figures like Nüwa (女媧), the mother goddess of Chinese mythology (credited with creating humanity), and the sister and wife of Fuxi (伏羲), the emperor-god, are depicted as having snake bodies. Some scholars report that the first legendary Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang Di (黃帝 – The Yellow Emperor) used a snake for his coat of arms. Every time he conquered another tribe, he incorporated his defeated enemy’s emblem into his own. This may explain why the Dragon appears to have the features of various animals.

There is no apparent connection to the western Dragon. In fact, if anything they are opposites where Western Dragons are generally seen as evil.

For a superb example of this reference Smaug from The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien which has been stunningly re-imagined by Peter Jackson for the big screen.

To learn more about Dragons Talons/Claws please see our next Blog post on Chinese Dragons Claws.

Paul

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